Professional Learning

Defanging the F Grade

July 21, 2009

In Nathaniel Hawthorne's great American novel, The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne's letter was, of course, an accusatory A. Damning for her, but I'd have been very happy had I received more of those when I was in secondary school.

For me, the scarlet letter that lent its shaming tinge to my academic career was the F. Ms. Prynne suffered greatly because of her letter, but I had my share of angst dealing with more than a few of mine.

As it happens, by dint of luck and a good enough mind, I've done better than some of the teachers whose courses I failed might have predicted. Yet I can recall, as if it were yesterday, the terrible shadow cast over my life by an F in math, or physics, or chemistry.

Whatever else I might have accomplished during a given marking period -- excellent records in English, art, and social studies, solo singing parts with the choir -- all it took was one F to cast a near-permanent pall over my school experience (not to mention a foreboding quiet over the supper table on the evenings after I brought my report card home).

I'm convinced that a feeling of inadequacy brought on by those scarlet letters lingers still, decades after they torpedoed my grade point average. I hadn't yet heard the saying that what doesn't kill us makes us stronger. Clearly, the failing grades didn't kill me, but instead of making me stronger, they just made me feel inadequate. My teachers' moving hands had written, and I had been found wanting.

I'm not going to claim I didn't deserve those failing marks, but they weren't from lack of trying. I simply couldn't bend my brain around the mysteries of algebra, for instance, and it took weekly tutoring just to get me to raise my F to a D. So, compiling my test scores and my homework demerits and my generally glazed expression in class, what could my teachers do?

But that was then, in an academic era with few gray areas, when failure represented -- well, failure. I have since seen that failing can be a beginning, rather than an end, a source of encouragement instead of a crushing blow.

In the mid-1990s, I worked for a national business magazine covering the technology boom in Silicon Valley. I spent a lot of time reporting on paradigm-shifting start-ups, interviewing such famously successful entrepreneurs as Oracle's Larry Ellison, AutoDesk's Carol Bartz (now CEO of Yahoo), and Netscape cofounder James H. Clark.

What I discovered was that almost all the successes in the Valley had been preceded by failure, and that an F on an entrepreneur's business report card was generally understood to be just a rite of passage. (Clark, who became a billionaire when Netscape went public, was a high school dropout, by the way.)

Paul Sappho, a well-regarded futurist in Silicon Valley, neatly summed up this attitude in a recent speech: "We know how to fail," he said, and he went on to joke that the reason high tech company headquarters in the area are surrounded by lush grass is so that when people jump out of high windows, "they only sprain their ankles."

Of course, there have always been dedicated teachers who help students use a failing grade as a catalyst for progress rather than a reprimand. And Edutopia's recent coverage of multiple intelligences spotlighted the widening understanding that difficulties with one subject need not overshadow a kid's abilities in other areas.

Realistically, there are students whose failures indicate attitudinal and social problems difficult for teachers to remedy alone. I'm no fan of grade inflation, and I'm not suggesting that failure be euphemized out of existence. But it should be seen as something of value, even if its impact on metrics is negative. After all, failure is inevitably part of everyone's life after school -- relationships fail, businesses fail, the best-laid plans go awry -- and we move on smarter, if we've learned anything at all.

So, if the goal of school is to prepare students for future success, failure needs to be understood in a broader context. There are ways, as Sappho says, to "know how to fail," to turn the stark finality of an F into part of a continuity, a bump in the road, not a blowout, the prelude to a comeback -- something that can be counterbalanced with successes and used for motivation instead of frustration.

I'd love to hear your ideas on how to accomplish this.

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